(An edited version of this book review was first published in Business Standard.)
Mindf*ck is a book that lives up to its name. It will make you acutely conscious of how you navigate digital spaces, interact with strangers online, disregard your own safety, and part with personal information. Do not read it if you are prone to anxiety because this book can be extremely triggering. The narrative style builds it up as a story of epic proportions, — a battle between the unscrupulous on one side and the conscientious on the other. Here is an avalanche of facts that can leave you shaken and scared.
The author is Christopher Wylie, a Canadian data scientist known for setting up and taking down Cambridge Analytica, which started as an offshoot of Strategic Communication Laboratories (SCL) and worked closely with Facebook. This book is an unsettling account of human depravity fuelled by capitalist fantasies about psychological profiling, data mining and social engineering. It is about an elaborate architecture of manipulation that includes everyone from military contractors to university professors, all fuelled by a thirst for power. It shows you how Western democracies that pay lip service to human rights are unapologetic about digital colonialism in Africa, South Asia and West Asia because data is what they are after.
Wylie was only 24 years old when he joined SCL in London but he had a great deal of experience for someone his age. He had not only worked for the Liberal Party of Canada but had also volunteered on the presidential campaign of Barack Obama, and had been involved in digital campaigns for the Liberal Democrats in the UK. SCL had brought him on board to use his skills for counter-radicalization efforts that would help Britain, the United States and their allies defend themselves against online threats. It took him a while to realize that he was in bed with people who were building ideological warfare to spread hatred against immigrants, people of colour, and LGBTQ citizens. He did not share their values, so he quit, and eventually became a whistleblower helping the world uncover connections between Brexit, Donald Trump’s election campaign and Russian intelligence.
What makes this book engaging is the fact that Wylie has a gift for describing people in detail, even if he finds them loathsome. They come across as individuals with distinct characteristics, behaviours and motives. You get to understand why the author was drawn to them, tried to suppress his own feelings of discomfort, and lacked the courage to call them out at several moments until his moral compass could not take it any longer. He takes responsibility for his actions, and admits that he will always live with the shame of having participated in building surveillance networks that sought to weaponize information. However, he wants to make things right and let the world know how data gathering practices are used to design fake news and disinformation campaigns that sow the seeds of polarization in society.
Mindf*ck is also about Wylie’s personal journey as a gay man who grew up with the experience of disability. He suffered from two rare conditions, whose symptoms included severe neuropathic pain, muscle weakness and vision and hearing impairment. He began using a wheelchair at the age of 12, and used it for the rest of his school days. It was annoying to be treated differently, so he found refuge in the computer lab where he could be on his own without having to interact with people who felt sorry for him. In later years, he enjoyed spending time with techno-anarchists who cared more about the craft of hacking than the way he looked or walked.
Wylie writes about what it means to be a queer whistleblower, and this is a profoundly moving section of the book. A refusal to hide oneself is at the heart of coming out. It is often defined as an act of truth-telling, of defying social norms, of being brave even while one is afraid of the implications. Being a whistleblower was like a second coming out. What Wylie wanted to speak about was not his sexual orientation but his intimate knowledge of the inner workings of Cambridge Analytica. What he had to fight against was not a heteronormative universe but non-disclosure agreements and the threat of lawsuits by the rich and powerful. Wylie does an excellent job of showing how lawyers, journalists and former colleagues formed a supportive network around him.
The book ends with an insightful epilogue titled ‘On Regulation: A Note to Legislators’. Wylie wants you to know that the dismal picture he has painted is not meant to create panic but to draw attention to the gaps that can be filled. He wants lawmakers to ensure that the law keeps up with technology so that Silicon Valley executives cannot get away with saying that they are not responsible for the mass shootings, ethnic cleansing and various other assaults on democracy being launched through the use of their digital platforms. If they want to profit from these systems, they must be willing to address the social costs.
Just as architects and engineers have to abide by building codes, Wylie advocates that people who create online platforms should be accountable to a digital building code. This should include abusability audits and safety testing before products or features are released. He also recommends developing a code of ethics for software engineers, requiring them to consider the impact of their work on vulnerable populations. If the engineer thinks that the employer’s request to build a feature is unethical, there should be a duty to refuse and a duty to report. The people who take these risks, and come forward with the truth, must be protected by law from retaliation from their employer.
The question that remains, however, is this: Is the state a trustworthy regulator?